Book review: Guy Halsall’s ‘World of Arthur’

McClatchy NewspapersApril 6, 2013 

"World of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages" by Guy Halsall.

  • Nonfiction Worlds of Arthur: Facts & Fictions of the Dark Ages Guy Halsall

    Oxford University Press, 384 pages

The myth of King Arthur, his queen, Guinevere, and the knights of the Round Table is too ingrained in our collective psyche to be overthrown by mere facts questioning his very existence. But British academic Guy Halsall tries anyway.

He has written an excellent book in “Worlds of Arthur” using archeology, manuscripts and migration patterns to prove that Arthur never existed; and if he did, he didn’t resemble any of the legends that have grown up around him.

His unusually readable tome starts with why he wrote it. A history teacher at the universities in London and York, he was reading “the latest populist Arthurian history,” which other reviews said offered “a plausible, scholarly case. It didn’t, and this annoyed me.”

So he buckled down to find out what scientists and academics really “know” about the period. Using archeology, forensics and extensive literary research, he thin-slices the legend of Arthur into steak tartar.

“Worlds of Arthur” is broken into six parts, some of which are entertaining – “The Antimatter of Arthur: Reassessing the Written Sources” – and others which are harder to read, such as “Beyond Brooches and Borchs: Rethinking Early Medieval British Archeology.” He takes aim at popular media, such as the movie “King Arthur” and other books in a chapter named “Red Herrings and Old Chestnuts.” After exhaustively taking readers through the evidence, he comes to this conclusion: The legendary King Arthur never existed.

This won’t mean anything to those who enjoy Arthurian legends. The fourth season of the U.K. show “Merlin” on Syfy recently drew more than 1.5 million viewers, a very good number for a cable channel. In late May comes the big kahuna of Arthurian publishing: an unfinished work by J.R.R. Tolkien called “The Fall of Arthur.” It’s bound to be a best-seller.

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